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If Marco Polo were alive today, what tales would he tell about China and Tibet?

Dr. Andrea Galli

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In 1298, Marco Polo told astonishing stories about a marvellous land he called Cathay, modern-day China which was ruled by the Yuan dynasty. During his extraordinary journey, Marco Polo also visited Tibet, which was also under the Yuan dynasty. He was the first Westerner to refer to Tibet as a part of China, and nobody objected. Marco Polo had no idea how his observations might change the face of the globe.

Since those days, world events have gathered speed. Columbus discovered America, at first believing it was Asia; disaffected and persecuted Europeans began to populate the shores of the new continent, squeezing further inland the indigenous population. Empire builders sought new colonies ever further afield. New lands to conquer, new resources to appropriate, new riches to seize…

Societies were subjected to similar upheavals. Old forms of exploitation were reinvented, with slavery giving way to feudal serfdom; ancient and new religious beliefs spread across the planet, to capitalism and communist ideologies divided the globe and its peoples.

Following the Second World War, the US saw in Tibet a religious patent that could be exploited against communism as an ongoing propaganda campaign. It started with an armed uprising in 1959 against the People’s Republic of China, followed by the exile of the 14th Dalai Lama in India and the establishment of the Government of Tibet in Exile ruling over about 100,000 Tibetan refugees settled mainly in northern India.

Ever since, China has considered all Tibet’s pro-independence movements as part of a strategic propaganda operation abetted by Western imperialists who want to destabilize China. This view was bolstered, for example, by the CIA‘s backing of Tibetan insurgencies during the 1950s and 1960s, the support of Western NGOs for the “pro-Tibet” riots of 2008 when China hosted the Olympic Games, and the continuing self-immolations by Tibetans and Buddhist monks promoted since 2009 by the Government of Tibet in Exile, praised as courageous by the 14th Dalai Lama – although he questioned their effectiveness – and glorified by NGOs advocating human rights for Tibet.

There have been intermittent expectations of formal negotiations between the principal parties to the Tibet issue, but their zero-sum view of Tibet’s political status, reciprocal accusations and mutual suspicion have been persistent barriers. The participation of other actors has also had an effect. Many foreign states acknowledge Tibet as a part of China, while none formally recognizes the Government of Tibet in Exile – also known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) – yet a number of them sustain the cause of the exiles in other ways. Thousands of supporters of Tibetan independence, encouraged by Western NGOs have also rallied to this cause, including members of the world’s parliaments, rights activists, actors, musicians, and ordinary converts to Tibetan Buddhism in the West.

In reality, communications on Tibet are persistently disseminated by the CTA, Western NGOs and the Chinese government as part of well-planned and organized propaganda campaigns serving contrasting geopolitical and military interests. China is in a particularly difficult position, since it is surrounded by topographical features that make it difficult for major armies to pass through. In the southwest there is Tibet: from a military point of view, it is a solid wall that has to be held. China has a fundamental security interest in retaining Tibet as well as an economic interest in its enormous natural resources, because Tibet is also the Chinese anchor in the Himalayas with its huge and still virtually untapped reservoir of minerals, metals, water and energy. From this perspective Tibet can be considered as a major Achilles’ heel for China.

In the context of decades of propaganda during and after the Cold War, serving the different geopolitical and military interests, the concept of Shangri-La is particularly important to our understanding of how Tibet is presented. Shangri-La is a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by the British author James Hilton. Hilton describes it as a mystical, harmonious Himalayan valley, serenely guided by a monastery of lamas or spiritual masters. Shangri-La has evolved in the Western collective imagination into a modern surrogate of the lost Garden of Eden: a mythical utopia, a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world, dedicated to the preservation of peace, spirituality and nature. It is an ideological fantasy representing the last refuge of Western societies from their present and historical sins of consumerism, atheism, capitalism and colonialism. The Shangri-La notion is the central constituent for manoeuvring popular opinion in the propagandistic exploitation of the collective imagination in Western countries.

The narrative of the Tibetan Government in Exile

Leaders of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) have opportunistically adopted parts of the myth of a pre-1951 Shangri-La in Tibet to promote a theocracy, from which the rulers gain legitimacy and to whose members secular Tibetans should pay obeisance, rather than being controlled by them. In promoting this idea, they use only that part of the Western idealization of Tibet, as Shangri-La, that is useful in legitimizing their status in the eyes of the West, however cementing their de-facto theocratic power within the exiled diaspora.

Because of the need for Western support of the exiled government and the significant role played by externally-based NGOs supporting Tibetan independence, Western hegemony is accepted in the diaspora’s discourses concerning Tibet and the Tibetan identity. A strategic essentialism that simplifies Tibetan identities for Westerners in the context of Shangri-La also impacts the self-identities of exiled Tibetans, many of whom accept Westernized notions of the Tibetan identity. Thus, although a modern sense of nationhood was absent in pre-1951 Tibet, CTA representations cast Tibetan nationhood as an historical reality. To gain legitimacy in the West, democratizing elements have been added to self-governance in exile, and the vocabulary of human rights, development, environmental protection, and so forth has been deployed by the CTA and supported by Western NGOs. Representations that directly fulfil the established Western image of Tibetans as inherently spiritual and peaceful have been especially prominent, forged by the personification of this utopia in the figure of the 14th Dalai Lama as a symbolic icon.

In reality, spirituality and sovereignty are linked through Tibet’s traditional system of theocratic government, in which politics and religion were tightly knit. Many exiled government officials continue promoting this system as ideal for Tibet and as an alternative to the atheistic Communist system of China. On the other hand, China has over the last three decades relaxed draconian and brutal Mao-era rules, by opening the door to private sector capitalism and by allowing individuals to practice a religion of their choice. There are now almost three times as many Buddhists in China as there are Communist Party members – there are 90 million members of Communist Party of China, some 250 million Buddhists and 200,000 registered Buddhist monks.

While the Chinese government’s approach to Buddhism has been liberal, it clearly takes the religion’s influence seriously, given its importance in Chinese society. The Chinese government is also acutely sensitive to the possibility of what it sees as external interference, especially on the delicate subject of Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism.

A particularly divisive issue for the Buddhist community, both within Tibet and in the exiled communities is devotion to the Dorje Shugden deity, a 400-year old practice that began in the 17th century and has become a major tradition in Tibetan Buddhism. At the origin of the controversy lies a de facto ban on the religious practice issued by the 14th Dalai Lama decades ago. The CTA sees the religious practice of Dorje Shugden as a competing and heretical movement that may undermine their notion of the spiritual leadership of the 14th Dalai Lama inside Tibet and among Tibetan Buddhists.

The de-facto ban issued by the 14th Dalai Lama has generated considerable social tension and division in the diaspora, as well as in Tibetan society within China, leading the Chinese government to consider the Dorje Shugden controversy an important front for undermining what it says are efforts promoted by the 14th Dalai Lama aimed at destabilizing China. The religious hostility has been fed by considerable propaganda and counterpropaganda efforts during the last two decades and it is still an open battlefield that may escalate at any time. In historical terms, the implications could be reminiscent of Martin Luther’s reformation of Christianity centuries ago.

Significantly sensitive are the methodical efforts of the exiled government to silence opposing voices in the controversy, using systematic defamation and coercive methods, including the use of modern disinformation means like coordinated troll campaigns on social media and fake news campaigns. Such methods seem out of place in the peaceful Shangri-La narrative that is usually promoted, but rather more suited to an atmosphere of historical crisis like the period of the Inquisition. Additionally, it has been continuously observed that Dorje Shugden followers, monks and monasteries in Tibet and abroad are portrayed as heretic, demonic and sectarian, and are branded as Chinese Communist Party supporters or Chinese spies by most NGOs advocating in western countries for the exiled Government’s goals.

 

The role of the Western human rights NGOs

The Western NGOs present pre-1951 Tibet as Shangri-La in a way that serves to reinforce Tibet’s claim for sovereignty in the international community by capitalizing on the yearnings of Western activists for a lost social and ecological harmony. For them China is demonized as an evil force which invaded Tibet in 1951, destroying a previously harmonious, peaceful, ecological and spiritual society. While the 14th Dalai Lama has stated that “all Tibetans want more prosperity, more material development”, those material developments realized by China in contemporary Tibet are seen by the Western NGOs as an immoral cultural regression and a mean of implementing brutal oppression which primarily benefits the Chinese state and Han migrants in Tibet.

The discussion on human rights has been added and elaborated by the exiles and their NGO supporters and has a close fit with similar concerns emerging in international politics generally. While exiled critics see a human rights strategy as detracting from a focus on Tibet’s lack of independence, Chinese officials regard it as the heart of the exiles’ campaign to internationalize the Tibet issue. However, the expression of the Tibet issue as a human rights problem – the mainstay of the exiled Government’s strategy since the mid-1980s – has garnered support from across the political spectrum and provides the exiled Government and their supporting NGOs with a visibility in global politics they would not otherwise have. It stands, moreover, as a challenge to the forced dichotomy of the real versus the ideal and the hegemony of realism in politics generally.

In the last two decades, a statistical table of causalities among Tibetans from 1951 through the 1970s has been widely circulated by Western NGOs. Its total of 1.2 million deaths is based solely on unconfirmed refugee estimates, but is cited often by Western politicians and media. Such figures are characterized by unsubstantiated assertions and improbabilities criticised also by established NGOs advocating for Tibetan independence: for example the head of the Free Tibet Campaign NGO based in UK, examined the refugee interview documents and found large-scale duplications.

The official 1953 census recorded the entire population residing in Tibet at 1.3 million. Other census counts put the population within Tibet at the time at about two million. If the Chinese killed 1.2 million in the early 1960s then almost all of Tibet would have been depopulated, transformed into a killing field dotted with death camps and mass graves of which no evidence exists. Other demographic studies show that, as claimed, battle deaths would have been several times the ratio for the main belligerents in the two World Wars; alleged prison deaths would have required that one-tenth of all Tibetans were imprisoned during each year of a three-decade-long period.

While there were unquestionably substantial causalities in Tibet due to violent actions of the Chinese in the Mao era, as there were everywhere in China, the spread of misleading statistics regarding Tibet seems a clear effort to manipulate public perceptions about the real situation.

While the US has formally agreed that Tibet is an integral part of China, its Congress has nonetheless politically and financially supported the Tibetan independence movement driven by the NGOs and the exiled Government. So did the Nobel Prize Committee when it presented the peace award to the 14th Dalai Lama in 1989. Such recognitions and support ignore Chinese contributions to economic development in Tibet: the welfare policy adopted by the central government of China since the 1980s has markedly improved the life of the average Tibetan, and religious freedom has been restored.

Instead of praising the efforts of the Chinese government, the US Congress has criticized any progress made as an attempt to erase Tibetan culture, defining such a process as “cultural genocide”. This terminology has been widely exploited by the NGOs in their propaganda effort since the end of the 1980s, even after several failed attempts to apply the term of “genocide”, whose adequacy has been largely contested in the post-Mao era.

Of particular importance is one of the main propaganda tools used by the NGOs and the CTA to generate media attention and political discussion: the campaign of self-immolation in protest against Chinese rule in Tibet. This campaign has intensified since 2009, but has its roots in a few isolated cases that began around 1998 outside Tibet.

The NGOs state that self-immolation acts of Tibetans are an affirmation of the Tibetan identity in the face of “cultural genocide”. This proclamation however disregards the fact that suicide is forbidden in Buddhism. The campaign is heavily exploited around the world. In some cases acts of self-immolation are even used to promote fundraising activities, and particularly in the US, to obtain governmental subsidies, with wide support from cultural exponents like Hollywood actors or famous musicians.

Only very few of Tibet’s Buddhist clerics or exponents of the human rights community have dared to speak out in Western countries against glorifying, praising and promoting acts of self-immolation for political gain. When asking exponents of the NGOs about the justification for this practice, the answer is always evasive, with vague references to obscure roots of self-immolation traditions in the Tibetan culture.

A trilingual (Tibetan – Chinese- English) sign above the entrance to a small café in Nyalam Town, Tibet, 1993

The linking of the Tibet issue to human rights has been traced to the decision of the 14th Dalai Lama and the exiled government to internationalize in the late 1980s. The foundation of the human rights position is the principle of nonviolence, an important aspect of the public face of the exiled government, and fundamental to its policies and its exploitation of the Shangri-La myth. This has facilitated a seamless incorporation of a human rights consciousness into the approach of supportive NGOs, while simultaneously making it plausible and credible to vast popular audiences, especially to non-Tibetan observers in the West.

Human rights and other transnational issues such as the environment have attracted consent for marginalized identity groups across the globe, popularizing their political concerns and aspirations. Popular movements that pivot on “rights” challenge not only state authority, but more recently, the authority of multinational corporations as well. The effect is that many activists have been mobilized to sympathize with the NGOs advocating for Tibetan independence.

Such activists usually have different ideologies but shares principles close to the Shangri-La utopia, like for example anti-globalists or anarchists, but also ecologists or socialists or vegans… In reality, the concept of human rights diplomacy itself implies the corruption of human rights as an ideal; it is a defective concept from the standpoint of idealists, because it reflects the imperfect fit between their goals and national, political and military hegemonies. It also reflects the gap between popular, state and geo-political interests, particularly when applied with double standards. In the ideal world, rights should be above interests, but in the “real” world, they are merely ideals.

Worldwide there are about a thousand associations, foundations or charity organisations that revolve around the subjects of Tibetan independence, human rights for Tibet or the 14th Dalai Lama. A complete overview has not been established yet. However, the following NGOs (some registered as charities, some as foundations) play a crucial role in this discussion:

INTERNATIONAL CAMPAIGN FOR TIBET is an NGO (website savetibet.org), based in Washington, US. It is endowed with a 4 million USD annual budget and supports the goals of the 14th Dalai Lama and the CTA. The NGO says it promotes human rights and democratic freedom in Tibet and is active in lobbying US Congressional committees. It networks with other exiled Chinese democracy NGOs, promotes news coverage of issues in Tibet, like for example self-immolation, “cultural genocide” or anti-Dorje Shugden campaigns. Additionally it publishes two newsletters, the Tibet Press Watch and Tibetan Environment & Development News, and speaks to academics, journalists, and civic and community groups. Its main public exponent is the actor Richard Gere.

TIBET HOUSE (aka Tibet House US Cultural Center of H. H. the Dalai Lama, website tibethouse.us) was founded in 1987 by Columbia University professor Robert Thurman (father of actress Uma Thurman), actor Richard Gere and modern composer Philip Glass (among others) at the behest of the 14th Dalai Lama. It operated initially only in New York. The organisation now has affiliates in India, Mexico, Germany, Spain, the UK and Russia. Besides the preservation of the Tibetan culture, the organisation is active in supporting the political views of the 14th Dalai Lama and is very active in propaganda against Chinese rule in Tibet and China. In the US it has annual revenue of 2.5 million USD and accumulated assets of 6.5 million USD.

FREE TIBET (website freetibet.org) is a small NGO based in London, UK with an annual budget of 500,000 USD. In spite of its small budget the NGO has a strong online presence in social media. The group’s political views are aligned with those propagated by the CTA.

STUDENTS FOR A FREE TIBET is an NGO based in New York, US with a declared annual budget of 700,000 USD. The NGO says it is a network of 35’000 students working toward social justice and freedom in Tibet. Students for a Free Tibet educates young people propagating a message of Tibetan independence and works on translating that awareness into action through political, economic, and social campaigns. Students for a Free Tibet say they recognize the legal and historical status of Tibet as an independent country. This NGO was the main organizer of Tibetan protesters who disrupted the Summer Olympic ceremony, the Olympics torch relay in Beijing, 2008.

TIBET FUND (website tibetfund.org) is a foundation based in New York, US. The entity has an annual budget of about 6 million USD and cumulative assets of 8 million USD. The Tibet Fund, founded in 1981, is the principal fund raising organization working very close with the CTA. The fund partner is the organisation OFFICE OF TIBET, the official agency of the 14th Dalai Lama and the CTA based in Dharamsala, India. OFFICE OF TIBET is present in 13 countries, with bases in New Delhi, Kathmandu, Geneva, New York, Tokyo, London, Paris, Moscow, Brussels, Canberra, Pretoria, Taipei and Budapest. They are in charge of bilateral relations with different countries as well as with European Union institutions and the United Nations Organisation. The organisations have several substructures registered as Foundations in the US and abroad, like for example the OFFICE OF TIBET US or the TIBETAN COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT FUND INC. The OFFICE OF TIBET US also has a managerial function with respect to the current president of the CTA, Dr. Lobsang Sangay, who is a US citizen living in Boston.

THE DALAI LAMA TRUST (websites dalailama.com, dalailamatrust.org) is the foundation of the 14th Dalai Lama based in New York and India which administers the royalties and revenues from his intellectual properties and public events. It was filed in 2009 and in the US the foundation has annual revenues of 2 million USD with accumulated assets of 7 million USD. The trust has several substructures registered as foundations in the US and India and possibly abroad. The total assets or revenue of all structures is not known at present.

INDEPENDENT TIBET NETWORK (formerly CAMPAIGN FREE TIBET) is today a rather obscure network of activists propagating radical separatist political views (called “rangzen”) on Tibetan independence. Its website is tibettruth.com. Formed in 1988 it was a lobbying network which campaigned for justice, human rights and independence for Tibet and East Turkestan. The NGO is today linked to a partner organisation called RANGZEN ALLIANCE, registered in New York and led by Tibetan separatists. The political views of both organisations are presently close to anarchism and against the theocracy of the lamas. They are clear opponents to the CTA, which they consider unsuited to true Tibetan independence. The organisation INDEPENDENT TIBET NETWORK appeared to be originally registered in London and had possible links to the UK intelligence services. Today it has links to the Anonymous hacking group. INDEPENDENT TIBET NETWORK was very active in the 1990s, forging the notion of “cultural genocide” and birth control issues in Tibet. Since 2008, partnering with RANGZEN ALLIANCE, it also glorifies the self-immolation campaigns in Tibet.

TIBETAN CENTER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEMOCRACY (website tchrd.org) is an NGO based in Dharamsala, India, closely working with the CTA, also based in Dharamsala. The NGO says it investigates human rights issues in Tibet and amongst Tibetan minorities throughout China. Its budget is unknown. The main focus of the NGO is the coverage of issues in Tibet, like for example self-immolation, political prisoners in China and “cultural genocide”.

The response of the Chinese Government

The Chinese government portrays pre-1951 Tibet not as Shangri-La but as a feudal house of horrors, among the darkest and most backward regions in the world, and one of the regions where human rights violations were most serious. For them the mission in contemporary Tibet is considered as fulfilling a long-term civilizing assignment.

Before the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951, the region was ruled by a theocracy and had a social hierarchy similar to pre-feudal times. Tibet was characterized by a form of institutionalized inequality that can be called serfdom: an ancient form of slavery preceding the development of the feudal system. It existed in Tibet until 1959. Exploitation was not through land-rent like in the Middle Ages in Europe but through enslavement to the aristocrats, clerics or manor owners. In return for working the land, the slaves were provided with minimal lodging, clothing and food. This form of slavery was finally abolished in Tibet only in 1959. Until that year, when China cracked down on Tibetan rebels and the 14th Dalai Lama fled to northern India, around 98% of the population was enslaved in serfdom. For example, the Drepung monastery, on the outskirts of Lhasa, was one of the world’s largest landowners with 185 manors, 25’000 serfs, 300 pastures, and 16’000 herdsmen. High-ranking lamas and secular landowners imposed crippling taxes, forced boys into monastic slavery and pilfered most of the country’s wealth – torturing disobedient serfs in a variety of brutal ways. In feudal Tibet, torture and mutilation – including gouging out eyes, pulling out tongues, severing hamstrings and amputation of limbs – were favoured punishments inflicted upon thieves, and runaway or obstructive serfs. Many materials and photos showing the limbs of serfs amputated by serf-owners in those years are kept in the Tibetan Social and Historical Relics Exhibition in the Beijing Ethnic Cultural Palace.

Earlier Western visitors to Tibet commented on the country’s theocratic despotism. In 1895, an Englishman, Dr. A. L. Waddell, wrote that the populace was under the “intolerable tyranny of monks” and the devil superstitions they had fashioned to terrorize the people. In 1904, the English traveller and writer Perceval Landon described the then Dalai Lama’s rule as “an engine of oppression.” At about that time, another English traveller, Captain W.F.T. O’Connor, observed that “the great landowners and the priests… exercise each in their own dominion a despotic power from which there is no appeal,” while the people are “oppressed by the most monstrous growth of monasticism and priest-craft.” Tibetan rulers “invented degrading legends and stimulated a spirit of superstition” among the common people.

Serf-owners literally possessed the living bodies of their serfs. Since serfs were at their disposal as their private property, they could trade and transfer them, present them as gifts, use them as collateral against debts and exchange them. Before 1951, Lhasa’s downtown area had a population of around 20’000. It was surrounded by some 1’000 tattered tents, homes of poverty-stricken people and beggars. The average life expectancy was only 35.5 years. In Tibet there was not a single school in the modern sense. The enrolment rate of school-age children was less than 2 percent, and the illiteracy rate reached 95 percent.

Over the centuries the Tibetan lords and lamas had seen the Chinese come and go and had enjoyed good relations with them. When the 14th Dalai Lama was first installed in Lhasa, it was with an armed escort of Chinese troops and an attending Chinese minister, in accordance with a centuries-old tradition. What upset the Tibetan lords and lamas in the early 1950s was that these latest Chinese were Communists. It would be only a matter of time, they feared, before the Communists started imposing their collectivist egalitarian schemes upon Tibet.

The issue flared up in 1956-57, when armed Tibetan bands ambushed convoys of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The uprising received extensive assistance from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), including military training, support camps in Nepal, and numerous airlifts. Meanwhile in the US, the American Society for a Free Asia, a CIA-financed front, energetically publicized the cause of Tibetan resistance, with the 14th Dalai Lama’s eldest brother, Thubtan Norbu, playing an active role in that organization. The 14th Dalai Lama’s second-eldest brother, Gyalo Thondup, established an intelligence operation with the CIA as early as 1951. He later upgraded it into a CIA-trained guerrilla unit whose recruits parachuted back into Tibet later in the decade. Many Tibetan commandos and agents whom the CIA dropped into the country were chiefs of aristocratic clans or the sons of chiefs.

Whatever the oppressions introduced by the Chinese after 1959, they did eradicate slavery and the Tibetan serfdom system of unpaid labour. They eliminated the many crushing taxes, started work projects, and greatly reduced unemployment and begging. They established secular schools, thereby breaking the educational monopoly of the monasteries. And they constructed running water and electrical systems. Chinese authorities also claim to have put an end to flogging, mutilation, skinning and amputation as forms of criminal punishment.

They themselves, however, have been charged with acts of brutality by exiled Tibetans. The Chinese authorities admit to such acts, particularly during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when the persecution of religious beliefs reached an apex in both China and Tibet. Prior to that, after the uprising in 1959, thousands of Tibetans were incarcerated. And during the Mao-era “Great Leap Forward”, forced collectivization and grain farming were imposed on the Tibetan peasantry, sometimes with disastrous effect on production, which led to famine and substantial related causalities.

Then, in the late 1970s, China began relaxing controls and tried to undo some of the damage inflicted during the previous two decades. In 1980, the Chinese government initiated reforms reportedly designed to grant Tibet a greater degree of self-rule and self-administration. Tibetans would now be allowed to cultivate private plots, sell their harvest surpluses, decide for themselves what crops to grow, and keep yaks and sheep. Communication with the outside world was again permitted, and frontier controls were eased to permit some Tibetans to visit exiled relatives in India and Nepal.

By the mid-1980s many of the principal lamas had begun to shuttle back and forth between China and the exiled communities abroad, restoring their monasteries in Tibet and helping to revitalize Buddhism there, including the popular religious practice of worshipping the deity Dorje Shugden. This exchange of religious teaching and movement of clerics across the Chinese border in the Tibetan communities has generated, among the CTA and the 14th Dalai Lama, fears of an accelerating loss of spiritual authority with respect to rival monastic doctrines, leading to the de-facto ban of Dorje Shugden devotion and consequent religious tensions.

In the 1990s, large numbers of Han, the ethnic group comprising over 95 percent of China’s immense population, began migrating into Tibet. Demographic issues in Tibet have always been strongly affected by conflict, migration and family planning. However, the NGO Tibetan Youth Congress has compared China’s migration of Han Chinese to Tibet to the Nazi extermination of Jews. Exiled leaders contend that the Tibetan population was 6 million in 1951 (in contrast of the figures of around 2 million of the 1953 census) and the same a half-century later, because the Chinese government killed al least 1.2 million Tibetans through war, imprisonment, execution, or famine. The figure is cited in Western media, but has been challenged by demographers. The 14th Dalai Lama has accused China of demographic aggression. Tibetan exiles and NGO supporters argue that family planning restrictions contribute to “cultural genocide” and assert that coercive birth control is applied. In reality, according to the 2000 census, there are 6 million Tibetans and 1.5 million non-Tibetans migrants in Tibet; additionally there are 5.4 million Tibetan migrants in Chinese territories outside the Tibetan plateau.

In spite of the demographic factors, Tibetan exiles and NGO supporters argue that the Chinese government carries out development in Tibet with little regard for the views of Tibetans, and that the Chinese Treasury profits exploit the region through state enterprises in sectors such as in mining and timber that operate in Tibet. It is argued that infrastructure in Tibet is constructed to facilitate military operations and the central Chinese government’s exploitation of resources, while most Tibetans, who are peasants and herders, are shut out of development or at least have benefited from it much less than the Han Chinese migrants in Tibetan areas.

In reality, the Chinese government sustains a net loss from Tibetan areas because it heavily subsidizes infrastructure development and government services. It argues that Tibetans are the principal beneficiaries of Tibet’s development, which provides opportunities and facilities open to all, including elements of preferential policies for Tibetans. Government statements emphasize that most Han Chinese in Tibet are temporary migrants engaged in small trade and thus should not be the most significant elements in any assessment of who, among long-term residents of Tibet, benefits from development.

This includes most rural Tibetans, who have experienced significant increases in income levels, education, health care, transport, environmental protection and communications over the past decades. For example the education system has been tailored to the cultural specificities of Tibetans by developing primary level schooling in the Tibetan language and secondary level schooling on a bilingual basis, adding Chinese languages and supplementary English lessons. Another example is the environment: it is argued that it is best preserved using world standards as a baseline, and is a major asset for the development of tourism in the region as well as in the safeguarding of cultural assets.

What would Marco Polo say?

Marco Polo once said of his travels: “I have not told the half of what I saw because I knew I would not be believed”. Tibet seems like a celestial paradise held in chains, but the west’s tendency to romanticise the country’’s Buddhist culture has distorted mainstream Western views. Popular belief is that under the lamas, Tibetans lived contentedly in a spiritual, non-violent culture, uncorrupted by lust or greed: but in reality society was extremely brutal, comparable to the cruelty of the Islamic State which devastated the Middle East societies in recent years. As much as we might wish it to be otherwise, feudal theocratic Tibet was a far cry from the romanticized Shangri-La so enthusiastically promoted by Western human rights NGOs.

What additional tales would Marco Polo have told today? Maybe that Tibet has become a major tourist destination for idealists? Or that only a handful of Tibetans would welcome a return of theocratic and aristocratic clans? That the Shangri-La myth is an ideological projection for offering redemption from the sins of consumerism? Or that the whole purpose of promoting the Shangri-La myth is to trade indulgences like Pope Leo X did in 1517? That maybe one day a Buddhist “Martin Luther” will come and nail a Manifesto on the gates of the Potala palace in Lhasa? Or that the Government of Tibet in Exile is a puppet of the CIA, or a relict of the Cold War? We don’t know, nor do we know what effect his words would have had. As the great navigator himself noted: “I speak and speak, but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear”.

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East Asia

China Vision: China’s Crusade to Create a World in its Own Image

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In the wake of Chinese leader Xi Xinping’s moves to make himself ruler for life, everyone is wondering about his government’s ambitions for its role in the world.  Daniel Wagner has written about what the trends indicate in China Vision: China’s Crusade to Create A World in its Own Image.

The book notes the paradox that China is in regards to investment.  The world’s 2nd largest economy continues to accept billions of dollars in development loans from banks like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank.  Meanwhile, Chinese state banks are loaning trillions of dollars to countries around the world.  Chinese entrepreneurs are feverishly setting up businesses abroad and purchasing foreign companies and real estate. If a foreigner wants to invest in China though, they must accept ownership stake limitations and obey rules that explicitly make them less competitive.  In regards to domestic investment, Wagner argues that China invests way too much on grand public projects, like apartment blocs that remain largely vacant, and not enough on small-midsized businesses.  One of these days (the next global recession?), the chickens will come home to roost and China will have to re-evaluate its blank-check policy.

Much of the book focuses on China’s role in foreign diplomacy and commerce.  The fledgling superpower is in the process of spending trillions of dollars on loans to the developing world, particularly through its Asia-oriented Belt and Road Initiative.  These no-strings attached loans give China enormous power over many of the poorest countries in the world.  Many people, like former Maldivian PM Mohamed Nasheed, have outright accused China of imperialist behavior.  The author writes that, “Kenya was to be forced to relinquish control of its largest and most lucrative port in Mombasa to Chinese control as a result of Nairobi’s inability to repay its debts to Beijing.”  China also owns ports in locales as diverse as Djibouti City and Zeebrugge, Belgium.  Chinese firms are likewise emulating some neo-colonial tendencies.  For instance, Wagner writes that, “Fewer than half of these [African-based Chinese] firms sourced inputs or had African management.”  Controversial Chinese real estate projects like Forest City, Malaysia are arguably examples of literal colonialism.

Through this strategy of buying friends and building a global network of ports, China is strengthening its impunity as a Top 3 naval power.  Increasingly, China is treating the South China Sea as its private fiefdom by ignoring credible territorial claims of the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal by the Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.  Most disturbing of all is Xi’s recent verbal aggression towards Taiwan.  By buying friends, China can mute criticisms of this military aggression in the UN and isolate foes like Taiwan (only 19 countries have diplomatic relations with it).  With a rapidly expanding fleet of sea craft, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is better equipped than ever to project hard power via all of China’s ports, from off the coast of the Philippines to Belgium…. On this dire note, I wish Wagner had written more about the budding conflict between China and the other 1B-person country in the world, India.  I predict that the dichotomy between democratic India and totalitarian China will determine the future of humanity.  Seeing as India & China (and China’s close ally Pakistan) all possess thermonuclear weapons and have recent military skirmishes with each other, one can only hope that the Tiger and Dragon don’t initiate WWIII squabbling over a sleepy locale like Kashmir or Nepal.

In the final section of the book, Wagner writes about China’s dominance in the virtual sphere.  Chinese tech companies like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent are rapidly catching up and even beating Silicon Valley in terms of traffic, profitability and innovation (most importantly, AI).  China has also become the de facto global leader in green technology.  China’s blank-check philosophy funds these rapid advancements.  A lot of this apparent innovation, however, is fuelled by corporate espionage.  For the past few decades, Chinese firms (often with official backing) have been using spies and hacking to steal blueprints and thus reverse engineer inventions.  Ironically, these knock-offs are oftentimes sold to the US government, which creates a huge security risk.  In many cases, Western companies willingly share confidential data with China in order to be granted access to the Chinese market.

China’s running racket of stealing IP and personal user data from US companies that choose to operate in China demonstrates the importance of government regulation… In this case regarding national security and user privacy protection.  Ironically, China enforces data encryption and other cybersecurity measures through regulations like the 2017 Cybersecurity Law.  The willingness of Western companies to literally sell themselves out to China in the frenzied hope of making a quick buck in the world’s largest market is textbook junkie-mentality.  These free market free-basers expose their fundamental flaw in the face of China’s system of state capitalism.  By ceding responsibility of investment from the government to the private sector solely, countries like the US are being vastly outspent by China in everything from space travel to quantum computing research.  As economists like Michel Aglietta and upstart politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez point out, the state must be responsible for picking up the slack when the free market fails to focus on important long term projects, like a Green New Deal (China already has its own publically funded version of the GND).

China Vision is a good account of the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic heavy-handedness and foreign diplomacy-via-blank-check.  The two are interconnected, as China’s crackdown on internal dissidents informs how it treats foreign countries and human rights activists who dare to oppose it.  Through China’s Belt and Road Initiative of loaning billions of infrastructure dollars to developing nations, it can control them through a carrot-and-stick approach.  China’s spy state apparatus is also being used to sabotage foreign humanitarian organizations, religious groups, governments and companies.  The CCP may soon export its surveillance state blueprint to other interested authoritarian states, setting the stage for a cold war between China and its client dictatorships & the Western democracies.  The People’s Liberation Army is preparing for this possibility with a huge naval buildup in the contested South China Sea, aided by all of the “civilian” ports that it’s building there under the auspices of the BRI.  Daniel Wagner’s book does a good job of explaining these geopolitical trends in a concise and even-handed way.  He explains how colonialism and the Cold War helped to shape China’s cynical outlook on the world and doesn’t exaggerate China’s capabilities.  Anyone in politics, tech, economics or the NGO sphere will learn a lot from this book.

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East Asia

China’s economic transformation under “New Normal”

Sultana Yesmin

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China’s double digit growth, also termed as “old normal growth” had dominated the country’s economy since 1980s. Despite the rapid economic development over the last few decades, this old normal growth has encountered some setbacks, including economic imbalance, income inequality, limited consumption choices against increasing level of demand, and environmental challenges.

Given this context, a comprehensive new development model, “new normal”, incorporating the innovation, coordination, greening, opening up, and inclusiveness, is formulated by Chinese authorities to enable wide-ranging growth and development throughout the country.

Analysts refer to “new normal” as China’s new phase of economic development. The recent trend of “growth slowdown” or “new normal” economic growth is also referred to new strategy of Chinese foreign policy by the analysts.

During the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit in Beijing held on November 09, 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping first used the phrase as “new normal stage of Chinese economy.” President Xi also referred to China’s stable economic growth in order to improve and upgrade economic structure under the “new normal” conditions.

Subsequent to this, China’s 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-2020) incorporates the “new normal” in economic development with a particular vision of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2020. The key significant features of China’s “new normal” are:

Slower economic growth

One of the key reforms or significant changes on China’s medium-high economic growth rather fast growth over the past few years is exceedingly evident. To be mentioned, over the past 40 years, China has maintained an average annual growth rate of around 9.5 percent that transformed an impoverished nation to an upper-middle-income nation.

In contrast, the gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate lowered from 7.5 percent in 2012-2014 to 6.8 percent in 2017. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the GDP growth rate was relatively same, 6.6 percent, in 2018, with an expected target of around 6.5 percent at the same time.

For the purpose of economic restructure and high-quality development, China’s local governments have also lowered their GDP growth targets in the same year. The new trend of normal flow of growth is projected to be relatively same in the upcoming years.

Yiping Huang, Professor of economics at the National School of Development, Peking University, and an adjunct professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, refers to such transformation of China’s growth model as the transition from “economic miracle” to “normal development,” which is the partial departure from the traditional bottom-up approach.

The World Bank also mentions that, China’s economic slowdown is not unexpected, rather desirable from both from short and medium-term perspectives aiming at fostering China’s transition to a modern economy through the new model. This transition denotes a clear move from high speed growth to slower, steadier, and more sustainable economy.

Market-oriented reform

One of the significant aspects of China’s “new normal” economic model is to facilitate market for playing “decisive role” in allocating economic resources. The “new normal” endeavors for making interest rates, currency exchange rates, and land prices more market-oriented. Incremental steps have already been taken towards the liberalization of interest rate and exchange rate set by market forces, cutting taxes, and reducing costs in order to widen market access, stimulate market vitality, and support economy.

The improvement of market environment, enhancement of private investment and investment-led growth, establishment of comprehensive pilot zones, facilitation of interest rate controls on loans, proactive fiscal policy, prudent monetary policy, and the increase of effective supply among other significant measures have also been outlined in the report on the Work of the Government delivered by Premier Li Keqiang at the Second Session of the Twelfth National People’s Congress on March 05, 2014.

Supply-side reform

President Xi first announced the phrase “supply-side structural reform (SSSR)” in late 2015, which injects new impetus into China’s economic policy framework. The SSSR mainly focuses on reducing distortions in the supply side of the economy and upgrading the industrial sector.

A study on China’s SSSR conducted by Reserve Bank of Australia finds five core policy objectives of China’s supply supply-side reform–cutting excess industrial capacity; reducing leverage in the corporate sector; de-stocking of property inventories; lowering costs for businesses and addressing “weak links” in the economy.

In this regard, China has focused on overcapacity reduction, especially in coal and steel production. As for example, more than 65 million metric tons of steelmaking capacity and over 290 million tons of coal-production capacity were eliminated in 2018.

Moreover, the government has already reduced tax to foster business friendly environment. President Xi has underscored the necessity of strengthening areas of weakness to boost the supply of the public goods and services.

Innovation driven economy, the vital part of SSSR, attempts to enhance the quality of products, reduce ineffective and lower-end supply through the advancement of artificial intelligence, big data, and the inauguration of 5G mobile communication equipment etc.

Services-driven economy

As per the push for services-driven economy, the socio-economic issues for the improved people’s wellbeing have also been addressed in the “new normal”. President Xi Jinping remarks, “Comprehensively deepening reform will not only liberate the productive force but also unleash the vitality of the society.”

The 13th FYP highlights the development of services and measures to address environmental challenges in order to reduce pollution and amplify energy efficiency. During the 2014 Beijing APEC meetings, temporary shutdown of Chinese factories was given “priority of priorities” to curb pollution and ensure air quality. As per the policy, China has started accelerating the development of clean energy industry from 2018.

The green development aside, robust consumption, reducing social imbalances, improving education and healthcare facilities, and expanding social protection get equal priority in the new phase of economic development.

Opening up through Connectivity

The new phase of Chinese economic growth is based on political economy that anticipates trans-border trade and investment facilitation as well as border connectivity through greater integration and sustainable relations among nations. China’s stretching connectivity over Asia, Africa, and Europe through the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”, altogether known as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is extending influence from South China Sea to Indian Ocean. RMB internalization and China’s leading role from multilateral trade forums to climate change accords clearly signify the “new normal” policy of President Xi Jinping.

Implications on China’s socio-economic development

The “new normal” economic model has far-reaching impacts on China’s comprehensive development and path towards building a moderately prosperous society.

First, China’s has comfortably been maintaining its position as the world’s second largest economy. National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reports, despite the slowdown of GDP growth rate, China contributed more than 30 percent to world economic growth during 2017. Hence, the investment-led growth since 2012 has resulted huge benefits for Chinese businesses and the overall economy.

Second, Chinese people are getting relief from the side effects of old model, mentioned earlier. The country has been witnessing growing equality among people, comparatively equal income distribution, robust consumption, environment-friendly industrialization, quality products, and other developments in other socio-economic sectors.

Third, Qualitative than quantitative aspects of economic growth, balanced and sustainable growth, stable employment, innovation, green development, investment intensification, faster industrial upgrading, and opening up are leading to China’s dream towards a sustainable socio-economic development. For example, the number of Chinese enterprises, around 27 million, and market entities have been increased in China over the past few years under both market and supply-side structural reforms. These new business hubs are boosting the country’s structural transformation and economy.

Finally, China’s new phase of economic growth and new historic juncture reiterate China’s development as per the vision broadly prescribed in Socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era.

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East Asia

The Slippery Slope of Sino-US Trade War

Syeda Dhanak Hashmi

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Change is the only constant. After a struggle for supremacy in geopolitical and geo-economical spheres, now technological realms have also been contested among superpowers. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is at the verge of breaking out and it is expected that this stage of modernization will tug the very fabric of society and will alter the way individuals interact with each other and world at large. Ongoing industrial innovation will act as a modus operandi to transform global economies, communities, and politics.

The world is in stern need of a modern global architecture before the fourth industrial revolution starts encroaching on us. That is why a trade tussle emerged on statist lines among all major economic stakeholders of the international economy, especially among those having a larger share in business with the United States. The US President Donald Trump opted a pre-emptive approach and imposed tariffs and nuisance in global economies. Eminent journalist, Bob Woodward highlighted the fact in his book ‘FEAR’ that USA’s protectionist elements are far-greater than ever before and such actions will hinder economic peace with traditional allies or trade partners. Trump’s tariff imposition on China and renegotiation of NAFTA and Free Trade Agreements with EU leaves no doubt about Woodward’s projections. Another famous Nico Colchester prize-winner financial journalist, James Politi of Financial Times referred exchange of tariff brawls between USA and China as “protectionist firepower” by Trump administration aiming against China. To cut short, current trade tariff discourse is in order to contain China in geopolitical, economic and technological leadership.

An ongoing trade war is economic intimidation and coercion by the USA towards China to redevise their trade agreements and get more favorable terms for the country, which will also advance Trump’s populist mantra of America First. Trade tariffs were imposed as a consequence for not responding the sheer allegations on Chinese companies by US administration of unprecedented level of larceny and infringement upon intellectual property rights. US Politicians claim that industrial migration and capital flight from the US to China was the reason of unemployment in the USA, but economists condemned the long-term policies like reliance on imports and not saving much for the future.

China’s rise is perceived as a threat to hegemonic stability, thus an influx of uncertainty is stirring in the realm of international political economies. This rise is analogous to the Thucydides trap and also depict similar characteristics as of power transition theory. But the fault line of this predicament lies in the technological advancement of China by virtue of US private enterprises and regional economic connectivity ventures of the country. In short, it is a feud between the two leading economic powers to overhaul world trading practice (its terms and conditions) coupling with technology and knowledge-based economy with an intent to hedge and wedge each other being the contenders of global hegemony.

Both economic powers, China and USA have been in a state of economic tug of war since June 2018. To resolve his sticky situation, Trump administration imposed 25 percent import tax on $50 billion worth of products of Chinese origin in order to overcome the trade deficit between both economic giants. China countered this move by levying duties on the produce of USA and more than three rounds of tariffs worth $250 billion were exchanged among both parties, in addition, both parties threatened with each other with penalties of $267 billion. However, both countries had annual trade relations of $710.4 billion in 2017 and China is ranked as the third largest export market for the USA.

The Chinese government was alleged for backing their private companies by injecting billions of dollars every year and termed as state-owned private enterprises by several journalists and newspapers. In addition, Chinese companies were suspected to violate patent rights especially the ones related to modern technology and Chinese authorities for restricting foreign companies to access their markets freely. China also announced its strategy named ‘Made in China 2025’ which implies that majority of end-user products will be developed by China in near-term while it is also a challenging situation for the USA for being a techno-center of the world. Vision 2025 asserts that China will be a front-runner in modern technologies like Artificial Intelligence and Biotechnology in the respective year .

While campaigning for elections, Republican President of USA, Donald Trump also proclaimed that Chinese development is equivalent to ‘rape’ and his administration will levy 45 percent tariffs on total imports from China. Formerly China had been under tariff regime of USA on products worth of $50 billion annually and President-Elect also threatened Chinese government to take a radical stance and impose further 25 percent taxes on January 1st, 2019 on products worth $200 billion. Chinese government retaliated this move by imposing tariffs worth $60 billion despite economic coercion from the US government of striking further duties on all products of Chinese origin.

Joseph Stiglitz, an eminent scholar, and Nobel laureate explained stated that:

The United States has a problem, but it’s not with China. Predicament lies in America because they saved too little, and borrowed and imported too much“.

USA and China are heading towards a war which no one wants at this point in time.In this modern era, the US and China must see ahead of time and resolve their bilateral relations which is a cause of disturbance in the international economic order. To do so there is a need to establish new norms of trading and economics which incorporate prevalent treaties and meet the requirement of the 21st century.  To serve the purpose rules should be developed to cater the technology related matters in international trading practices.

Current global situation of power transition and hegemon desiring stability depict the same case as of Thucydides trap which is an outcome of structural pressures spiraling from an emerging power challenge the ruling one. Although this theory is ancient but very relevant to the on-going trade-brawls of China and USA, a case where the leadership of both countries sings hymns of making their country great again. This conflict has no resolution other than either party accepts the dominance of other whereas in this case China is not going to cap and roll their economic endeavors, and the US will also not concur to Chinese supremacy in Pacific, cyberspace and external space. There are certain stern measures which competing economies will have to take in order or else it could be an all-out war.

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